Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Membrion’s Greg Newbloom filters out the laborious stuff to deal with easy concepts

Greg Newbloom plays with black sand on Punalu’u Beach in Hawaii. (Photo courtesy of Greg Newbloom)

Forget the hashtag #nofilter. Greg Newbloom is all about filter. Or, filtering. Especially as it all relates to science and the startup he founded called Membrion.

“I’m a home-grown Pacific Northwesterner who loves solving seemingly impossible problems with simple ideas that only a fool could think would work — and then they end up working,” said Newbloom, our latest Geek of the Week.

Over the past six years, Newbloom said he’s been lucky enough to invent at least one new technology within the first year of every project that he has worked on. It’s led to 23 pending and two granted patents and three new companies.

Membrion is the most recent of those. The startup won the University of Washington Business Plan Competition in 2017 and raised $2.23 million in a 2018 seed round.

“I utilize my deep expertise in chemical engineering (UW PhD, ’14) to make molecules assemble themselves in the structures I want in order to create industry disrupting new materials,” Newbloom said.

According to Newbloom, filtering molecules is similar to filtering coffee. You want small things to pass through your filter (water) while preventing large things (coffee) from coming with.

“Because we are filtering molecules that we cannot see, we need a filter with really tiny holes,” he said. “It turns out that those silica gel packets you find in shoe boxes and beef jerky packages are good at removing moisture from the air because they have really tiny holes that water molecules can fit into. So we figured out a way to make a sheet out of silica gel that lets small molecules go through while keeping larger ones on the other side. The silica gel filter is both effective and really inexpensive which is what makes the potential impact so significant.”

Newbloom’s wide variety of interests include cooking, strategy board games and gardening. If he wasn’t trying to solve problems around clean energy and water, he said he tackle the problem of managing kitchen inventory with a self-monitoring system that could tell you what you have in stock, how much you have in stock, and what’s going bad.

“We need to bring IoT not just to kitchen appliances but to our food itself,” Newbloom said. “The dream would be to see it fully integrated with grocery delivery services so you could specify what you’re looking to make and know the ingredients you have are fresh and available. That all sounds particularly fun to me because it would be challenging to do well and I love solving those sorts of problems.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Greg Newbloom:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I’m currently extracting technology from the bottom of a beef jerky package to solve the world’s most pressing needs for clean energy and drinkable water. In 2016, I founded Membrion based on a novel, simplified process for making molecular filters called membranes. The reality is that the world’s biggest problems, clean energy and drinkable water, are going to be solved by innovations in new materials that make new technologies more reliable and economical. That is something I can contribute to and having a lasting, positive impact is what drives me day-in/day-out. I currently serve as the CTO of Membrion and have successfully grown the organization from just me to a team of 10, raising $3 million in the process.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Developing a new material is a really slow, non-linear process that has yet to be optimized. For example, single-layer graphene was discovered in 2004 and took a decade to make its way into a niche market product. It’ll probably take another decade before there is widespread adoption. Unlike tech, it can take 2-3 decades to bring an idea from conception to wide-spread market adoption. Identifying winners and losers is corresponding extremely difficult, but when winners are found they often have profound impacts on how we interface with the world.

Where do you find your inspiration? I can find inspiration in most everything but on the condition that I’m thoroughly bored. I have to slow down enough to actually allow something to impact and inspire me. Repetitive actions seem to have a way of connecting concepts for me. I can’t count the number of times that pruning tomatoes plants in my garden has led to insights, most recently that real growth requires pain and pruning first.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I wouldn’t want to live without pumps. They’re the unsung heroes of modern society. People without access to pumps often spend hours everyday accessing water. Pumps probably increase my, and all of our, productivity by at least 20 hours each week.

(Photo courtesy of Greg Newbloom)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? Membrion has office and lab space in Pioneer Square that is an equal mix of awesome and quirky. My office is roomy, sometimes too cold or too hot and has a door that leads directly into our labs. The lab is a welcome distraction when I need a break from my computer screen.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I have running to-do lists in Asana that, if lost, would devastate my life. Asana is the second half of my brain that frees me up to never have to think about what to do. That said, my never-ending list (literally with recurring activities it never ends) doesn’t control what I do. I’ve learned to ignore it when something more important comes up and to not judge the success of a day based on what I can check off. It’s easy to become a servant to organizational tools, so I try to keep in mind that I’m the boss — not Asana.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Picard.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter would dramatically improve my efficiency. The other two seem kind of dangerous given the possibility of fracturing the space-time continuum or getting hit by a car that can’t see you.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … put it into Membrion! That’s too easy.

I once waited in line for … a Chipotle burrito bowl. Haven’t we all?

Your role models: Anyone that I can learn something from is a role model — which is most everyone. I learn best through experience and observation of people I actually know and am therefore intentional about spending my time with other committed to learning and growth. My friend Mark teaches me how to be a great friend, my wife Jenny teaches me the importance of caring for my mental health, my CEO John teaches me how to build a company, etc. I could go on and on. It’s hard for me to truly admire someone I don’t really know, ya know?

Greatest game in history: “Terraforming Mars” is the greatest game in the history of our galaxy.

Best gadget ever: 3-in-1 avocado slicer, I am never more delighted cooking than when using that tool. I spent many years cutting avocados with a knife and ignorance was not bliss.

First computer: Apple IIgs, first and only Mac.

Current phone: Samsung Galaxy Note9.

Favorite app: It varies month-to-month but right now it’s ReceiptBank, which has changed my life for the better.

Favorite cause: STEM mentorship for women and minorities is a win for all of us.

Most important technology of 2019: Hands down it’s membranes. They purify our water and medicine, make our batteries and electric vehicles work and help us make cheese — need I say more?

Most important technology of 2021: Still membranes, but this time they’re made by Membrion!

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Go see a therapist. Seriously. We all know that emotional intelligence is probably the single biggest factor in determining career success. Let’s embrace that we all have issues, big and small. See a therapist, become aware of your issues, understand why the exist and work through them. That is where true emotional and interpersonal freedom lies. Your friends, family and colleagues will thank you.

Website: Membrion

Twitter: @gregnewbloom

LinkedIn: Greg Newbloom

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